China’s Energy Plans Will Worsen Climate Change, Greenpeace Says

The plants, aimed in part at reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants in China’s largest cities, will shift that pollution to other regions, mostly in the northwest, and generate enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas produced by fossil fuels, said the organization, which is based in Beijing.

If China builds all 50 plants, the carbon dioxide they produce will equal about an eighth of China’s current total carbon dioxide emissions, which come mostly from coal-burning power plants and factories, the organization said. Two of the plants have already been built as pilot projects, three more are under construction, 16 have been given the green light to be built and the rest are in various planning stages, according to the report.

Last September, the government announced a plan to alleviate air pollution in China’s notoriously smoggy cities. The plan would reduce coal use in the most populated areas by 2017.

Since then, officials have been looking for other ways to provide power for those areas, including the building of scores of coal-to-gas plants, mostly in northwest China. They would take the place of current coal-burning power plants in China’s most populated areas, including the heavily polluted northern region that includes the cities of Beijing and Tianjin.

Coal-to-gas, or coal gasification, is a water-intensive process that generates enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas destabilizing the world’s climate. Many scientists have criticized the process and said its use would be even worse for global climate conditions than burning coal, which produces carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Chinese state-owned power companies categorize proposed plants as “clean energy” or “new energy.” China is responsible for half of the annual global coal consumption and is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, followed by the United States. Chinese and American officials have been engaged in on-and-off negotiations for years over how each nation can pledge to cap or reduce its coal use to try to avert severe climate change.

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A large percentage of proposed coal-to-gas plants would be built in Northwest China




Last October, two Duke University researchers published a commentary in Nature Climate Change that said Chinese policy makers should delay the huge investments in coal-to-gas projects “to avoid a potentially costly and environmentally damaging outcome. An even better decision would be to cancel the program entirely.”

Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace East Asia, said in a statement on Tuesday that “China risks a boom in a destructive, expensive and outdated technology, which could undermine its efforts on climate change and further damage its environment.”

Eighty percent of the 50 plants would be in northwest China, in the provinces or regions of Xinjiang, western Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Gansu. All these areas suffer from severe water shortages. The Greenpeace report said that besides the surge in carbon dioxide emissions, the plants would also worsen water scarcity, water pollution and air pollution.

One of the two operational plants is in Inner Mongolia, where the city of Hohhot has reached an agreement with Beijing Enterprises Group to provide Beijing with four billion cubic meters of synthetic natural gas per year. The gas from the coal gasification plant there, operated by the China Datang Corporation, would equal half of Beijing’s current annual gas demand.

The Greenpeace report cited research from Tsinghua University showing that this agreement would reduce coal use by 8.94 million tons per year in Beijing, but increase it by 12 million tons in Inner Mongolia.

There would also be a net growth of 3.77 million tons per year in carbon dioxide emissions and an increase of 24 million tons in water consumption, it said.

On Tuesday, the National Energy Administration of China announced that it would place limits on proposed coal-to-gas projects, banning those that would produce less than two billion cubic meters of gas per year and coal-to-oil projects producing less than one million tons of oil per year. The energy administration developed the limits “after new technology sparked an investment spree regardless of environmental and economic realities,” Xinhua, the state news agency, reported.

Ma Wen, a Greenpeace researcher on coal-to-gas projects, said in a written statement, “The new N.E.A. directive shows that China’s energy authority is clearly concerned that its big plan for coal-to-gas plants in western China, seen as a solution for eastern China’s air pollution problem, could go wrong.

“But the document stops short at merely stressing the necessity of closely monitoring the projects’ development,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that Beijing is fully aware that western China, including Xinjiang and western Inner Mongolia, don’t have the environmental or water capacity to accommodate its coal-to-gas initiative, or that by 2030 the projects in total could produce almost 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.”